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Google Diplomacy

Mar 25, 2010


APDS Blogger: Peter Winter

Is Google bold? It takes some serious courage to stand up to the gatekeepers of the world’s biggest market. By refusing to kowtow to the Chinese censors, the tech company that built its fortunes on the free flow of information stood up for its business model, not to mention the ideals of its home country.

Even the act itself was elegant. Rather than simply shutting down its Chinese website, Google transferred all visitors to the censorship-free Hong Kong website. It is still China, right? This “diplomatic” approach allowed the Silicon Valley giant to cross the cavernous fault line between morality and business.

Or is Google dumb? The Chinese powers that be have already hit back, charging Google with breaking its written promise to the country and acting as a White House pawn. The company’s hopes of protecting its advertising and research divisions within China are fading fast as state media and government officials lash out.

You often hear about how important “face” is in China. Similar to one’s reputation in the West, the concept has a more collectivist tint in the Middle Kingdom. People will go to seemingly absurd lengths to save face - if you have ever seen a street side shouting match in Beijing, then you have some sense of just how important one’s public appearance is to the Chinese.

Perhaps the worst possible way to get the Chinese government to change is by making them lose face. In almost every diplomatic tussle between the two countries, a head-on approach invariably leads to both sides digging in. There is a saying popular among American diplomats in China: 坚 定 不 移 (jianding buyi). It means “steadfast and unwavering,” and is regularly evoked in regards to the U.S.’s One-China policy (there is only one China on either side of the Strait). The same idiom perfectly captures China’s central government: while U.S. foreign policy can be stubborn, Chinese foreign policy is downright immovable.

The best approach is to push China’s leaders from the side, deflecting their energies toward more beneficial ends. Rather than confront the government outright, Google could have better served its own interests through quiet, backdoor negotiation. Perhaps Silicon Valley has a ways to go in its foreign policy.

What is unclear, however, is how Google’s move is influencing the Chinese public. Are ordinary people content without a free flow of information? The flowers left at the company’s front door make me think no. It’s not that Google’s move is an “Oh my god! We are being censored!” moment, but it may serve as the tipping point for an already simmering public, ready to join the modern, technology-open world.

Peter Winter is a second year student in the Master of Public Diplomacy program, and managing editor of US-China Today.


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Great article, Peter!

Great article, Peter!

Maybe Google intentionally wanted to make the Chinese government lose face. Perhaps Google executives knew there was no way the Chinese government would let any of this go, and they actually wanted to maximize Google's own exposure as a company willing to go against the wishes of 天朝. Why would they want to do this? Well, it rallies a lot of Western fans to Google's side and gives them a good excuse to get out of a project that perhaps wasn't doing as well as they had hoped. If they're not interested in remaining in the Chinese market anymore, then angering the Chinese government about freedom of speech issues might actually in their best interest.


Like many westerners who

Like many westerners who spent a year or two in China and picked up a few Chinese words here and there, Mr. Winter falls into the trap of the PRC's government propaganda of doing things "the Chinese way".
They often cite "face" as the be-all and end-all of Chinese diplomacy and treat the PRC as a spoiled child who must be handled with kid gloves.
(I do think it is because of westerners' own history of prejudicial perceptions of the Chinese.)
Google has been in China long enough to understand that the government is totally adapt in pushing and pushing until one submits oneself to its complete control.
Mr. Winter should wake up to see the PRC exactly what it is; the same way Google has finally recognized that there are only two choices in the PRC - to submit to the CCP or follow Google's own corporate code of conduct of "Don't be Evil".

Dear Ms. Lau,

Dear Ms. Lau,

Thank you for your thoughts. I always appreciate good feedback, it definitely helps focus my understanding of the situation.

I do not believe that pushing China's leadership toward greater accountability "from the side" constitutes doing things "the Chinese way." Rather, it is a simple strategy for good diplomacy, whether dealing with China or any other country. I rarely see full-on confrontation yielding positive results. With the Chinese government in particular, the response is usually one of heel-digging, intentionally provoking some nationalist response from the public. As a student of public diplomacy, I worry about that blowback. But as I noted in the article, I am very interested in how this plays out among the Chinese public. Those citizens concerned with freedom of information and human rights will have a hard time remaining quiet about this.

I agree with you that American diplomats often treat the PRC too gently. I believe we are seeing the beginning of a more mature, "adult-gloved" US stance toward China. What I find most fascinating about the Google decision is the very visible example of private companies stepping into the diplomatic arena. While private entities have long played a role in US foreign policy, only now are we beginning to see "Information Policy" as a strategic interest.

Thank you again for your thoughts, and I look forward to hearing from you in the future.


I have been involved in many

I have been involved in many different human rights actions for the people of China. A good question to ask for perspective is, "Has the PRC ever changed a position due to outside influence, because it was a way that saved face?" From what I know the answer is a resounding no. The PRC has it's own agenda, which clearly has little to nothing to do with human rights. And, when we take actions to try to influence them, they are often futile due to the closed nature of their political system and not the culture.
It is more likely that they are influencing our political system, in that we echo the PRC's party line as it is fed to us. They say, "Chinese culture, history, and thinking is thousands of years old. And Westerners just don't understand why we are not ready for democracy. Life is good here."
We hear this from so many mainland Chinese, and so it sounds authentic. But, it comes from a totalitarian political system, where this is really the party view, regurgitated for foreign consumption.
Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have been trying for decades, to lessen human rights abuses in that country by gently approaching the PRC in a face saving manner. It hasn't worked yet.
Mainland China opened it's doors to the West, because it realized it's economic system was a failure. But, it's political system remains unchallenged, growing in strength with the economy. Now they have the technology to monitor the whole internet using segment of society, with the ease of modern technology, from Cisco, Yahoo and Google. Maybe, Google is realizing this too late. Maybe too, questioning the complete disregard for human rights in China even feels hypocritical to an American political system that is encroaching on it's own citizens human rights. It seems naive to think that our government doesn't spy on online accounts at home, or that they always have good intentions.

Dear Mr. Winter,

Dear Mr. Winter,
I believe Mr. Gabriele has answered your argument on the productivity of pushing China from the side and helping them save face.
As to your judgment that the current administration is mature and "adult gloved" in their dance with the PRC, surely, Mr. Winter, you jest.
Certainly, one would not consider the Academy award worthy performances of Obama and the Communist Youth League at the Shanghai "town hall" meeting as "adult gloved". Perhaps the three administrators who played the part of "student" and asked their prepared questions are certainly adults. Maybe you are referring to the "adult gloved" action of the Obama entourage paying respect at the Mao Mausoleum to someone who murdered more of his own people than Hitler and Stalin combined.
If you want to find out what the Chinese public think about censorship and the Great Firewall, check out Southern Metropolis Daily of Guangdong or Han Han's blog upon being aware that he was nominated for Times magazine's 100 most influential person. The saddest part is when he wrote what he considered as the giant improvement for his country "如果我们国家能做到话不投机一拍两散,而不是话不投机把你封杀,那就是我们国家的巨大进步".
Ann Lau
Han Han's Chinese comment follows.
For English translation of the daily and Han Han's blog, see


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